Ernst Peter Fischer on Challenges Posed by Max Delbruck
  Ernst Peter Fischer     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Jun 2000

The hardest task – well I mean psychologically, the hardest task was once walking the desert, but you mean scientifically. I didn’t know it was the hardest task, he would like to play a little joke, when you came into his laboratory, and he had a problem that he was working on for twenty years, without coming to a solution. But you would know that you don’t know that he was working on the problem for twenty years, because he had not published one, so how do you know? So when I came in, he showed me this fungus, and said look this fungus is growing up a little bit. And then he went and placed a ball next to it, it moves away from the ball, its called avoidance response, and he said its very strange, look, it avoids the ball. “Can’t you find why it does that? What is the signal that it receives?” And you think, well I can do it. So later I do this very quickly, and I know the answer. And it turns out he has been working on this for twenty years without finding the answer, but he didn’t tell you. And he liked to do things like this. So that was maybe the hardest problem. With respect to the hardest problem in life, he liked to take you on canyon trips, and he knew exactly certain ways where you would end up on a dead end, but he would let you go first, and it was a very difficult climb, and very hard and it was getting dark already, and it was still … when you get to your campsite, and he turned around when you were coming down and left the other way. And all of the sudden you felt lost in the desert. And then you heard his voice yelling, “why don’t you try to go the way the water does?” he was always trying for practical jokes. But with respect to science, he sometimes really challenged you to prove a certain point you made in a discussion, and you had to prove it immediately, even if it was Saturday night. I mean, but of course if you proved it immediately, or if you disproved it immediately, you could call him up in the middle of the night and say, “Max I know now.” And if you did not call him up in the middle of the night, he would be angry. It’s not the other way around.

Ernst Peter Fischer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Constance since 1994. He studied mathematics and physics in Cologne and biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned Ph.D. in biology and qualified as a professor in the history of science.

He has published biographies of Max Delbrück, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and James D. Watson and received several awards for his scientific publications. Fischer is an author of such books as "Die andere Bildung", "Selling science - The history of Boehringer Mannheim" and "Das Genom" - an introduction into modern genome research.

He has been honoured with the Heinrich-Bechold-Medaille (1980), Preis der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft Freiburg (1981); Lorenz-Oken-Medaille (2002), Treviranus-Medaille (2003) and Eduard-Rhein-Kulturpreis (2003).